The US interception of an Iranian civilian aircraft over Syrian skies has set off yet another escalatory episode in the rivalry between Tehran and Washington over influence in the Middle East.
“This is exactly and undoubtedly an act of aerial terrorism,” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said in condemnation of the US interception of an Iranian Airbus A-310 passenger jet that was flying over Syrian airspace last week.
In a strongly worded televised speech July 29, Rouhani added that the United States must be treated as a “terrorist state” because it “harassed passengers” on board the plane. He urged a reaction from the UN Security Council and the International Civil Aviation Organization against the “mischievous” and “unacceptable” move.
In its own version of the events, the US Central Command has said two of its F-15 fighter jets conducted a “standard visual inspection” from a safe distance of the plane that belonged to Mahan Air, an airline linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Minutes into the incident, Iran’s state television reported that several passengers on the Beirut-bound flight had been injured as the pilot had to drop altitude by conducting a sudden safety nosedive to avoid the two warplanes.
Starting in 2011, the US Treasury has slapped Mahan Air with multiple sanctions over its perceived secret operations assisting the IRGC with weapons smuggling and troops deployment to Syria, a charge that the airline has repeatedly denied.
However, last month a bombshell account by Amir Assadollahi, a Mahan Air pilot, once again brought to fore questions of the company’s involvement in Iran’s regional activities and its “covert services” to the IRGC’s overseas command, known as the Quds Force.
The conservative outlet that interviewed Assadollahi, Razmandegan-e-Eslam, has taken off the content but it remains available via other sources, which republished it. The pilot detailed a dramatic situation from 2013, when he was carrying seven tons of “illegal cargo” and 200 passengers, among them IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. En route to Syria, Assadollahi claims, the plane was forced by the US military to land for inspection in Baghdad. The pilot said that he advised the commander to stay in the cabin disguised as a flight engineer, hence skipping the “face scans,” to prevent Soleimani from being recognized and detained. The pilot further relates that using “US dollars,” he “bribed” Iraqi agents into ignoring an inspection of the illegal cargo before he resumed the journey and landed safely in Damascus. The account, nevertheless, prompted a statement from Mahan Air, which described it as a “fabricated illusion.” (Nearly seven years after the alleged incident, the United States killed Soleimani with a drone strike at the Baghdad airport).
During his Cabinet address, Rouhani also noted that the US threats against Iranian passengers in the skies have not been without a precedent. He dug into the past, referring to the 1988 downing of Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf waters by the US Navy cruiser Vincennes. None of the 290 people on board the plane survived the US strike.
The Islamic Republic itself shot down a passenger aircraft with at least two surface-to-air missiles in January in what it officially blamed on a “human error” at the hands of battery operators in an IRGC-run air defense base outside the capital Tehran; 176 passengers and crew on the Kiev-bound flight operated by Ukraine International Airlines died in the missile fire.